AUSTIN — The Department of Public Safety Commission gave the agency’s fitness standards the green light Thursday, despite legal pushback from state troopers over a requirement to measure waistlines.
In a unanimous vote, the commissioners voted to adopt the standards and certify that the measurements comply with scientific norms and the latest requirements from the Texas Legislature.
“Beyond the legal requirement, it is our obligation to implement this kind of program,” chairman Steven P. Mach said.
The fitness standards include physical aptitude tests and a requirement implemented in 2018 for officers’ waistlines to be 40 inches for men and 35 inches for women. Last week, the Department of Public Safety Officers Association filed a lawsuit over the waistline requirement, calling it “demeaning” and damaging to troopers of different builds.
DPS Deputy Director Skylor Hearn said the standards target obesity and health issues that can affect officers’ performance on the job and aren’t intended to go after overweight people.
“Fitness and health are directly related to the duties of an officer,” he said.
Troopers who don’t meet the standards could face termination, transfer or demotion, even if they pass all other required parts of the agency’s physical fitness test, but Hearn clarified that there will be no sanctions against officers until September 2020.
Before then, DPS will give officers an improvement plan and health resources, he said, and will waive standards for officers undergoing health conditions, such as pregnancy or cancer.
Richard Jankovsky, president of the DPS Officers Association, said he was disappointed to see the department move forward with the fitness standards.
He said he doesn’t disagree with the research presented or the intention to keep officers healthy, but he worries the waistline requirement will force some officers off the workforce. Even though officers won’t face demotion or termination until next year, Jankovsky said he sees a health improvement plan as a sanction.
“I didn’t hear a single doctor say you cannot be a police officer if your belly is 41 inches,” he said. “Rather than have negative consequences, let’s get them to a trained health care provider for further testing and help.”
Three health experts testified Thursday that they approve of the fitness standards, including the waistline measurement. Scientific and medical literature widely supports the use of waistline measurement as a valid evaluation of health, said Ralph Bovard, a doctor and assistant professor at the University of Minnesota.
Jonathan Sheinberg, a Baylor Scott & White Health cardiologist and a Cedar Park Police Department lieutenant, said waist circumference is an accepted measure of risk factors for hypertension, diabetes and heart disease.
“We cannot support the notion of fat and fit,” he said. “The two are a misnomer.”
Along with body fat percentage, which is also a part of the fitness standards, officers should keep an eye on their waistlines, Sheinberg said. The average officer between ages 55 to 59 has a 56% chance of having a heart attack because of the stress of the job, compared with the 1.5% probability for normal civilians, he said. A Harvard study reported that police officers have a 30 to 70 times higher risk of sudden cardiac death.
“By developing this fitness program, we’re keeping our officers healthy and safe, returning them to their families at night,” he said.
Instead of the standards, Jankovsky said he would like DPS to give officers more time to work out while on the job. He said officers are allowed to work out while on duty for 30 minutes three times per week.
“An ideal plan is to expand the amount of time we’re allowed to work out on duty,” he said.
The standards were developed after consulting experts and recommendations from organizations such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and they take into consideration physiological differences such as height and weight, said Michael Harper, the supervisor of DPS’ fitness wellness unit.
In addition to individualized improvement plans, the unit also provides daily workouts, weekly tips and monthly webinars on health for DPS officers, Harper added.
Harper presented testimonies of officers who reported improved health and slimmer waistlines after participating in the program. A 52-year-old officer, who admitted to not stepping in a gym since DPS recruitment school, shed 54 pounds and dropped his waistline from 41 to 38 inches, Harper said.
“Our role isn’t just to help individuals be fit for duty, but for life,” he said.
After approving the next round of fitness tests to be completed by November, the commissioners requested the unit provide a report of the fitness testing data at their February 2020 meeting.